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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

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The case of the missing half-time teacher

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st July 2009

French immersion, Jerry Weast, and the future of the Montgomery County Public School System

Our little girl is not so little any more: she just finished fifth grade in June.  Soon after, like many kids at the end of their elementary school years, she and her classmates went on a class trip.  Unlike most fifth graders, however, this trip was to Quebec, Canada, and my daughter and her classmates conversed in fluent French with the tour guide, hotel staff, and assorted other Quebecois.


Fifth grade class trip to Quebec: future diplomats, businesswomen,
scientists, and scholars understanding and speaking fluent French.
If this is a boutique program, it’s a triumph, and we need more of them.
Video by Madeleine Nephew.

To the right is a video Maddie took while on a guided bus tour of the city.  I took a few years of French way back in junior high school and high school.  But even back then, I think I’d have had next to no idea what the tour guide was jabbering on about.  The kids, by contrast, are understanding the tour guide, answering questions, and likely joking with and about each other — all in French.

It’s all thanks to one of the hidden gems — all too well-hidden, perhaps — of Montgomery County, Maryland’s public schools (MCPS): a French immersion program that comprises about half of the student body at Sligo Creek Elementary School in Silver Spring.  The program is one of seven K-5 language immersion programs in the system. *

Language immersion programs are exactly what they sound like: kids are dropped into a kindergarten setting in which the teacher speaks only French from the time the kids walk into the room until the time they leave for home.  By the end of kindergarten — much sooner, really — they’re doing all the things any kindergartener does: lining up for lunch, singing songs, drawing pictures, starting to read stories — all while instructed in French.  And by the end of fifth grade, they’re doing much more sophisticated projects; for her part, Maddie did one on “la lutte pour le vote des femmes americaines” – a nicely written, five page poster history of American women’s struggle for the vote.

The case of the missing half time teacher
While looking over the MCPS web site one evening in January, my wife came across a “Q&A” exchange (between school board members and MCPS staff about the 2010 budget.  Question 10 read: “Will the reduction of 8.7 elementary special program teacher positions impact the French Immersion classes at Sligo Creek Elementary School?” The answer — unbeknownst to the school administration until my wife told them about it — was yes, but don’t worry about it too much:

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The greening of Van Hollen

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th July 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) that read, in part:

Thanks to your hard work, the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed 219-212 in last Friday’s historic vote. Although, as we’ve said, key features of the bill fall short of what scientists say is urgently needed, there were several members of Congress who emerged as true climate leaders — including Congressman Van Hollen. Congressman Van Hollen is on a well-deserved recess until July 6th but I want to make sure he hears from his constituents when he gets back. That’s why on Tuesday, July 7th, I plan to hand-deliver a giant thank you card to his office. (Care to join me? Just email me)…

I decided against joining in on the giant thank you card. But I think the story of just how Congressman Van Hollen got the “climate leader” accolades and “climate herogala festivities CCAN has been bestowing on him is worth telling.

Gordon Clark, the 2008 election, and “cap and dividend”
In last fall’s election, Representative Van Hollen was opposed by (among others) Green Party candidate Gordon Clark — whom I supported. Van Hollen is a personally popular liberal Democrat elected in something of an uprising against local moderate Republican Connie Morella in 2002; he’s not hurting for campaign funds, and many in the area are proud he’s chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — despite Van Hollen’s association with the disappointing Democratic “opposition” to Bush between 2002 and 2008.

Clark, a long time activist in and director of peace and environmental movements,  campaigned hard and turned in a strong debate performance — which Van Hollen couldn’t attend due to the emergency bailout vote the same evening.  On Election Day Van Hollen easily outdistanced both Clark and his Republican challenger.

But the Clark/Green Party campaign was influential nonetheless; as often happens with third parties, they peel off some activists, they serve as an important source of ideas, and they can win some important skirmishes even if they wind up losing the contest. In this case, the skirmish Clark won was one for the endorsement of an influential local political group, Progressive Neighbors. In a very surprising development (covered on this site), Clark tied with Van Hollen after a kind of “mail-in debate” — the only debate of any kind between the two candidates in the campaign. Clark had parried Van Hollen’s less coolly composed letter with point after point detailing Van Hollen’s lack of leadership, especially on the financial crisis, peace, and environmental issues.

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Takoma Park police license plate scanner policy: no image storage

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th April 2009

The Takoma Park Police Department has issued draft guidelines for the proposed license plate scanner system that are the next best thing to no scanner at all (still my preference): the default policy will be no storage of “scan files” once a given operator’s shift is over.  From the draft:

06 Limitations on Usage:
A. Only officers or employees certified by a Command level officer will be permitted to access the Extract Downloads, develop hot lists, or operate the device. Any such operator will be required to possess authorization to access NCIC and MVA files via the MILES system. Security of the extract downloads will be consistent with other directives, rules, regulations, laws and procedures applying to the use of information from those databases, and will be the responsibility of the operator.

B. Scanning Missions will not last any longer than the shift duration of the operator. If a successive officer takes over use of the vehicle in which the ALPR Scanner is mounted, or otherwise takes over use of the device, they will initiate a new scanning mission after development of a new hot list from the latest extract downloads.

C. Scan Files developed during the mission will be deleted from the device upon completion of the operators shift.

D. It will be a violation of this policy and procedure to download any scan file, without the expressed authorization of the Chief of Police.[...]

(Emphasis added.)  The draft policy was discussed at Monday’s Takoma Park City Council meeting (video link).  Chief Ricucci had courteously sent me a copy of the draft policy a few days earlier, and I was able to propose a few suggestions to strengthen the policy during the general public comment period (and by e-mail).

Chief among these was that the police notify the City Council when the chief of police “expressly authorized” exceptions to this and other default policies (having to do with database lists provided to the scanner, and sharing data with other agencies.)  I was pleased that councilmember Josh Wright and other councilmembers took up some of these suggestions, and that police officials attending the meeting (including Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey, who attended the forum) appeared to have no problem with them.

I remain skeptical of the need for this system and question the civic wisdom of giving such potentially sweeping surveillance power to law enforcement.  But this outcome, if it holds, is the next best thing to no scanner system at all: one that forgets what it saw at the end of the day.  I don’t like the relatively unencumbered wiggle room for downloading scan files on authorization of the chief of police, but a reporting requirement would at least give people a chance to know that was happening so they could come to a judgment about that.

I may have more to say after reviewing the video of the meeting; it isn’t crystal clear to me what will happen next.  While I’m fairly sure there will be a revised draft policy incorporating some of the suggestions made during the work session, I’m less sure whether that will lead to an immediate vote on the purchase.  It appears that the grant money for the purpose must be collected soon, so that Council — by and large, more sympathetic to the system than I am — feels an incentive to move quickly.

For now, I guess I’ll call this a small win… tempered with regret that we’re choosing to surveille ourselves this way.  But I also appreciate that my concerns were listened to, both by the police and by the City Council.

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License plates: more private than you may think

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd April 2009

I’ve learned it isn’t quite true that anyone can look up anyone else’s license plate information — that is, inquire who belongs to a car with an “ABC 123″ license plate that just annoyed or intrigued you.  Anyone can try, but they may well not succeed — and that has implications even for those who can look up such information.

The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 restricts license plate and other motor vehicle data lookups to legitimate governmental or business-related inquiries (is the fellow applying for a taxi driver or trucking job telling the truth about his driving record, etc.)  As EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) tells it, the law was specifically written to prevent stalkers from obtaining personal information via license plate lookups — not a theoretical concern at the time.

To be sure, there are some pretty wide loopholes in the federal law: “use in the normal course of business,” “research and statistical activities,” etc.

Maryland law appears to be more restrictive.  When I tried to look up my own license plate on one of the countless online “license plate search” sites that turn up in ads when you Google “license plate”, I finally got to a screen asking me to check off one of the many federal exceptions allowing driving-related records to be released — but Maryland was not one of the states the service offered for search. (In fact, only a few states could be searched in this way, though this may be a function of the particular service I tried to use.)  The image to the right is a screen capture of what I saw; click through if you want a better look.*

More to the point, see also the MD DOT MVA “Protecting Your Privacy” page:

Your records are now automatically closed to the public unless they are requested by the police, an insurance company, a hospital or for another official business purpose.  [...]

Now, without written permission from you, no one, except for those groups listed above who need this information for official business purposes, can obtain the following personal information about you from the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA):

Personal Information:

  • Your name
  • Your address
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Your date of birth
  • Your social security number
  • Any other information that identifies you

There are law enforcement exceptions in both the Maryland and federal statutes.  But as I’ve learned, there’s a popular refrain out there that “anyone can look up a license plate,” that it’s “public,” that there’s “no expectation of privacy” when it comes to this information.  I recently organized a forum about the possible acquisition of a license plate scanner by the Takoma Park Police Department.  Here’s an exchange from that forum:
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Takoma Park: stolen cars rarely noted in other crime reports

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st April 2009

In justifying their grant application for a license plate scanner last year, the Takoma Park Police Department wrote:

The City of Takoma Park experiences on average 165 stolen auto incidents each year.  It also has experienced 75 robberies, 142 burglaries, and over 500 larcenies each year on average over the last ten years.  In many of these cases it has been learned that the perpetrators frequently will travel to and from the crime scene in a stolen motor vehicle.


For a separate web page view of this workbook, click here.

But Takoma Park Police crime statistics do not seem to bear out a need for added surveillance technology to deal with these problems. First, the 2008 annual report, released in late January, states on page 1 that that there were 99 auto thefts in Takoma Park in 2008 — down 24% from the 130 recorded in 2007.

And while the annual report doesn’t provide the kind of detail that would be needed, a look at fourteen months worth of TPPD Police Bulletins suggests that known stolen vehicles are involved in only a small proportion of crimes: only 3.5% of assaults (2 out of 57), only 6.4% of robberies, and less than 2% of other crimes (excluding stolen cars and 5 carjackings) are reported to have involved the criminals use of a stolen car.

One reason this may be worth mentioning is because I suspect more sensational cases inevitably crowd out the less interesting ones in our memories as time goes on. Thus, someone I’ve corresponded with about this wrote to me, “In the written details of the crime advisories, almost every street robbery involves someone exiting a car and robbing someone and getting back into the car, or a robbery occurring and the robber fleeing to a get away car.”

As best as I can tell, this just isn’t so. While cases involving robberies and stolen cars are certainly reported to happen now and then, a more typical reported case sounds like this: Read the rest of this entry »

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Optical scan vote by 2010 imperiled (again) in Maryland – UPDATE

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th March 2009

UPDATE FROM TRUEVOTEMD.ORG, 3/17

Governor O’Malley will be submitting a new budget this week with hundreds of millions in cuts and we want to make sure that the transition to optical scan is included in the new budget. Call the governor’s office TODAY — NOW — 410.974.3901 –and tell them keep the op-scan funding in place. Your message can be this simple: Please keep funding for optical scan voting in place. The transition will save Maryland two million dollars next year and over the next few years those savings will be compounded with less expensive machines and lower operating costs.”

The Maryland Senate leadership met this weekend to — as TrueVoteMD.org’s Kevin Zeese put it in an e-mail alert – “decide whether to derail the transition to paper ballot-based voting.” Zeese continues: “They are considering this action under the guise of cost savings when in fact transition to paper ballots with optical scan counting will save money.”

No word yet on what transpired at that meeting — State Senator Jamie Raskin told me today he didn’t know where the leadership is going with this issue.

Optical scan, paper ballot-based voting is a no-brainer compared to the hideously expensive, unverifiable, breakdown-prone, easily hacked DRE (direct recording equipment) touch screen voting machines currently in use in Maryland.  If you already agree that optical scan voting machines are the way to go, here are some ways you can help tonight and tomorrow:

  1. Send the TrueVoteMD.org email message at this link to some well-selected recipients — (a) members of the Senate Education, Health & Environment and Budget and Taxation Committees; (b) Senate leadership including Mike Miller, Jr., Nathaniel J. McFadden, Edward J. Kasemeyer, Lisa A. Gladden, and Robert J. Garagiola, and (c) Governor O’Malley.
  2. Join in a “lobby night” tomorrow evening (Monday, March 16) at the Senate Building in Annapolis, MD:

    “We will meet in the Senate Building, 11 Bladen St, at 5:30 in the rotunda (turn right and walk up the ramp after passing through the metal detector). There you will be organized into teams and given legislators to talk to along with talking points and other materials. In preparation for the lobby night please visit: http://mdelect.net/ and get the list of your Delegates and Senator. Please send that information to Stan Boyd, sbb223@yahoo.com and let him know you are coming so we can organize the lobby night.”

The prepared text of the TrueVote e-mail is as follows (emphases added):
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Van Hollen cosponsors EFCA

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th March 2009

One million strong for the Employee Free Choice ActFrom the AFL-CIO:

This week, 223 representatives signed on as co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act. They are leading the way in the fight to restore workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life. It is imperative that we thank these representatives for siding with working families instead of Big Business lobbyists.

Thank you, Representative Van Hollen. As one of the cosponsors listed in the preamble of the act itself, and as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I hope he’ll continue to lead the charge for this important legislation in the days and weeks ahead.

As is well known, the bill seeks to “amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.”

The means for that efficient system is the so-called “card check” method of organizing a union, in which the National Labor Relations Board is directed to immediately certify a union as the representative for workers when “a majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for bargaining has signed valid authorizations designating the individual or labor organization specified in the petition as their bargaining representative” when the workers are not already represented.

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Governor, Maryland State Police: “we’ll handle this”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th March 2009

ACLU of MarylandLegislative efforts to prevent a repeat of the infamous Maryland State Police spying scandal are coming to a head this week.  Naturally, there are competing bills, and the founding fathers wouldn’t be surprised at how they compare — Governor O’Malley’s preferred bill (HB 311/SB266) stands for “we’ll handle this from here,” while the bill by progressive legislators like State Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegate Sheila Hixson (HB 182/SB256) stands for “no you won’t.”

While the Frosh/O’Malley bill would be better than nothing, it leans dangerously far in the direction of permitting a good deal of what occurred during Maryland State Police’s “amok years” in 2005 and 2006,* and in leaving the door as widely ajar as possible for as much future covert surveillance as possible, all under the catchall term “legitimate law enforcement.” For instance:

(D) The Department shall:
(1) conduct all investigations involving First Amendment activities for a legitimate law enforcement objective [...]

(F) An investigation involving First Amendment activities shall be terminated when logistical leads have been exhausted and no legitimate law enforcement purpose justifies the continuance of the investigation. [...]

(K) Nothing in this section may be construed to prohibit a Department employee, in the course of the employee’s duties, from visiting any place… that is open to the general public… if the Department employee has a legitimate law enforcement objective.

That might not sound so bad until you realize that what’s legitimate and what isn’t is precisely what was and is at issue — and that it remains completely undefined in this proposed legislation. The Baltimore Sun reported that State Senator Jamie Raskin, by contrast, rightly believes that police need an “explicit guide,” adding:

“Having them write their own rules is not the solution,” Raskin said. “That was the problem.”

Indeed, even “writing their own rules” is being generous — the O’Malley bill doesn’t even seem to require explicit State Police revised rulemakings, settling instead for vague directives about how it might go about its business. Raskin’s bill is better from start to finish, providing specific descriptions of covert surveillance, and requiring specific actions whenever covert surveillance of “protest or advocacy entities” or individuals is envisioned.  To wit,  the State Police chief would have to make “a written finding, including specific factual determinations… that the use of the covert technique is justified because (1) a reasonable, articulable suspicion of a present or planned violation of the law; and (2) a less intrusive method  is not likely to yield satisfactory results .”

As the ACLU of Maryland writes — in a form e-mail you can add your name and thoughts to

It is disturbing that the Administration is promoting a bill (HB 311/ SB 266) that fails in numerous ways to set the necessary standards to protect the First Amendment while opposing legislation that does establish strong standards, HB182/SB256. In fact, the Administration bill would actually condone some of the worst spying that has occurred.

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Video

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd March 2009

A forum about the civil liberties implications of a proposed license plate scanner system (announced here, on community listservs, and on fliers) was held in Takoma Park on Wednesday, February 25, 2009.  A video of that forum was recorded and uploaded by my friend Michelle Bailey (“Takoma Videotaping“).

Forum participants included:

I’ve compiled a draft transcript of the forum.  The times there (and above) indicate the beginning of the speaker’s comments. A Q&A session began at around 42:23.

Takoma Park City Council member Terry Seamens, Public Safety Committee chair Chuck Thomas, and Takoma/Silver Spring Voice publisher/editor Eric Bond were in the audience, as were Takoma Park Police Department’s Chief Ronald Ricucci and Captain Edward Coursey.

Other resources for this forum:

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A forum on license plate scanners

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th February 2009


The panel

From the left: me, Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior
counsel at the Constitution Project, David Zirin
(The Nation, Campaign against the Death Penalty),
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the National
Capital Area ACLU.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew
For a slideshow of all forum photos, click here.
[All photos are by Madeleine Nephew
-- thank you, Maddie!]

As advertised, I was joined by Sharon Franklin, David Zirin, and Johnny Barnes on Wednesday evening for a forum about the TPPD license plate scanner proposal.  (For background, see my prior posts on this issue or this resource page.)  [UPDATE - video here] [UPDATE - transcript here]

I thank each of them very much again for coming; their discussions were on point and helpful, as was a lively question and answer period with the audience, which included one councilmember, a public safety committee chair, and — by advance request  — Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey from the police department.

My publicity efforts were not as successful as I’d have liked, but both local press and friends were on hand; my friend Michelle videotaped the proceedings as did the ACLU; assuming there aren’t technical difficulties, that will eventually be online for others to view for themselves.

I prepared some introductory remarks.  An excerpt:

…So far, we have had an upside down process: a grant application for a device before a community decision to seek one, an agency drafting policy after the money is in hand rather than a legislative body doing so before, all before consideration of alternatives.

Some say I’m making “much ado about nothing.” I disagree, and I think after tonight many of you will as well. A decision to subject ourselves to automated surveillance ought to be a very, very hard decision, not an easy one. I think it moots the 4th Amendment and chills freedom of speech and of assembly — especially in a permissive legal environment where we will have little control or even knowledge of how that surveillance is expanded, reused, or shared with federal agencies armed with “National Security Letters.” Even if approved — as I personally hope it will not be — hard questions would remain: when and where to deploy it, which wanted tag databases to download, what kind of safeguards to set up and who will run them, what penalties to impose if those safeguards are violated.

We in Takoma Park do not need to look to what’s merely permissible to police departments. We can also say how we want our community to be, and what safeguards on our rights we will insist on.

The forum produced a few new points of specific information from my perspective.  First, Captain Coursey noted that the city attorney was looking into the question of whether data collected in this fashion could be compelled to be divulged to other agencies.

Second, Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey appeared to me to be saying that (a) the grant application did not request funding for so-called “back office” hardware and software that would facilitate the reanalysis of stored data, and (b) that they were thereby saying they did not envision doing so.

While that was comforting to me, Captain Coursey also clearly wanted the door kept open for that, pleading for no “rush to judgment” on that score.  Also, the lack of dedicated funding for storage isn’t all that telling.  As the TPPD’s own press release last December stated, “50,000 and 60,000 plate reads equal one gigabyte of hard drive space.” Assuming the interface with the squad car device can be bridged, off-the-shelf PCs could store millions of images; assuming the scanned image tag/time/location records can be downloaded as well, even more simple data records could be stored.  The software requirements are probably not insurmountable either; a simple file/directory system might do, or records could be stored in a conventional database.

But given the open, frank, and cooperative impression both officers made on me and the rest of the audience, perhaps both the press release and the worksession discussion of storage and reanalysis were more about capabilities than firm intentions.  I’m willing to believe they don’t seek this, and that they can support an explicit “no storage” provision by City Council for the device.
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